Completing the third arc in my series, The “Right Age” for Young Readers:
I admit it. It was a trick question.
In this case, I wanted my previous post—asking for opinions about a suitable age for Young Adult fiction to address issues like misogyny and self-harm—to generate reactions of shock and outrage. I wanted comments to argue over whether teens should be shielded from these horrors, or whether it is better that they be prepared for the dark world around them. I wanted flame-wars debating their impressionability against the resilience they possess to absorb the knowledge of a complex world. I wanted mothers to decry how fiction corrupts their daughters, and daughters to insist upon having a choice of content. I wanted arguments.
Instead, I got no comments at all.
Perhaps this is a sign that the question has no answer. The average adult’s natural instinct to protect young people is tough to criticize, after all: it’s not hard to take sides when parents want their kids safely at home, or to roll our eyes when a parent locks the liquor cabinet. Censorship, perhaps the filthiest word in literature, takes place every day in nuclear families and school libraries, and nobody objects. Nobody objects, because, where kids are concerned, it’s just better to be safe than sorry.
Or is it?
There’s no question that teenagers live lives that are far from sanitary. Even in the “good schools” where I used to teach, the usual challenges arose around alcohol and drug abuse, and the depression that often results from these pressures and others. So kids would hear about these dangers, from parents and from teachers and from those eye-rolling ‘special presentations’ that invited guest would hold on assembly: talks delivered, more often than not, by speakers who struggled to project an ill-fated ‘cool’ image through their crow’s feet, while strutting their cellulite across the stage.
But nobody ever seemed to address the scarier issues. Mental illness, for example, or rohypnol. Nobody was game to admit that troubled people will hurt themselves, or that not every doctor works in a patient’s best interests. That if it’s done to the weak, it’s probably rape.
So, as is often the case, it’s up to literature to forge ground tackling these matters. Goodreads lists 196 teen novels dealing with rape or sexual abuse, perhaps the most powerful of these being Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and perhaps the best-known being Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s harder, though, to find treatments of less visible issues. While there are plenty of teen novels considered “feminist,” the same source lists far fewer stories about self-harm for that audience, and doesn’t seem to identify any Young Adult fiction addressing misogyny. There are issues that I tried to embed, inside an adventure, when writing Labels.
I’m sure it’s being done all the time: but it needs to be done and identified, for young sufferers of these problems to feel less alone. We need to more openly celebrate writers who address these issues, for other teenagers to understand their peers better. We need to get kids to open these books, without fearing the well-meaning censorship that features so prominently in the best of homes. We need school libraries that see they are stories about living.
There really is no such thing as a “right age” to face a broken world. The best we can do for young readers is to give them practice facing it… by facing it in stories.